Iran's Beleaguered Baha'i Minority Faces Serious Threat

January 26, 2010

Baha'isSeven leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community are currently on trial on serious, but baseless, charges that could lead to the imposition of the death penalty. Although they have done nothing more than peacefully practice their religion, they have been charged with spying for Israel, for “insulting religious sanctities,” with “propaganda against the system” and with “mofsed fil arz” or “corruption on earth.”

The seven include two women, Fariba Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet, and five men: Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaei, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm. All are leading members of a group responsible for the Baha’i community’s religious and administrative affairs. Mahvash Sabet who acted as the group’s secretary, was arrested on March 5 2008. The others were arrested on May 14 2008. All seven are held in Section 209 of Evin Prison in Tehran, which is run by the Ministry of Intelligence. They have only been allowed very limited access to their lawyers while they have been in custody.

The first session of their trial—which had been repeatedly postponed—finally began before a Revolutionary Court in Tehran on Tuesday January 12 and is set to continue on February 7. Amnesty International has repeatedly criticized proceedings held in Iran’s Revolutionary Courts for their failure to adhere to international standards for fair trials. In fact, the authorities attempted to bar the Baha’is’ lawyers from the courtroom on January 12 and only allowed them access after they insisted upon entering.

One of the Baha’is’ lawyers, Abdolfattah Soltani, was himself arrested in June in the crackdown following the disputed June 12 presidential elections and detained for more than two months. He is a member of the Center for Human Rights defenders, founded by Iran’s Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, which was forcibly shut down by authorities in December 2008.

The Baha’i faith was founded in Iran about 150 years ago; there are currently an estimated 30,000 Baha’is left in Iran. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, the Baha’i community has faced systematic persecution and harassment. The Baha’i religion is not recognized in Iran’s Constitution and Baha’is are denied equal rights to education and their access to employment and advancement in their jobs is restricted. They are furthermore not allowed to meet or hold religious ceremonies.  More than 200 Baha’is were killed after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected in 2005, several members of the Baha’i community have been arrested. Three of the seven people named above (Fariba Kamalabadi Taefi, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Jamaloddin Khanjani) had been arrested previously for their activities on behalf of the Baha’i community.

Under Article 502 of Iran’s Penal Code, those convicted of espionage can be sentenced to between one and five years’ imprisonment. Under Article 508, those convicted of the more serious charge of “cooperating with foreign states to harm national security” can face either the death penalty or a sentence of one to 10 years’ imprisonment. “Insulting the religious sanctities” carries the penalty of execution or one to five years’ imprisonment. “Propaganda against the system” carries a penalty of three months to one year’s imprisonment. Ali Ashtari, a telecommunications salesman, was hanged in November 2008 after being convicted for espionage for Israel.

The Iranian authorities have even blamed the Baha’is, among other groups, for orchestrating much of the unrest that took place on the observance of ‘Ashoura on December 27. At least 13 Baha’is have been arrested from their homes in Tehran since the demonstrations of that day.  The Iranian government must stop scapegoating the Baha’i community and allow its members to peacefully practice their religion without fear of persecution.